Non-border cities like Denver should make migrant aid routine priority, advocates say

Denver winding down emergency operations after helping more than 4,100 migrants since early December

By: - January 12, 2023 2:16 pm

Cots are arranged in an emergency shelter for people arriving from the southern U.S. border at a Denver recreation center, Dec. 13, 2022. (Kevin Beaty/Denverite, pool)

While Denver is winding down its emergency operations to support an influx of migrants over the last month, immigration nonprofits in other cities have made supporting newly transplanted migrants part of their everyday operations.

Immigration experts in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., say other non-border cities like Denver should be prepared to support migrants as a routine part of their operations. Border states shouldn’t be the only ones responsible, they say.

Denver has helped more than 4,100 migrants who came through the country’s southern border since the start of December, and is now enacting a 14-day stay limit for migrants as it plans to decommission emergency shelters it set up in city recreation centers.

The city received support from a variety of nonprofit and faith organizations, and the state stepped in briefly to transport migrants looking to get to Chicago and New York City during peak travel interruptions amid the holiday season. According to a news release from the governor’s office, Colorado was not the final destination for about 70% of the migrants coming into Denver, but weather and workforce shortages recently made traveling difficult.

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Gov. Jared Polis dedicated $5 million in state funding to support migrants coming into Denver and has pushed for both Congress and the White House to search for additional solutions. Denver City Council members voted to extend a local disaster emergency declaration for the city’s sheltering efforts that lasts through Feb. 27. Denver has spent over $3 million on its efforts to shelter and support migrants since December.

“People fleeing violence and oppression in search of a better life for themselves and their families deserve our respect not political games and we are grateful we have been able to assist migrants to reach their final destination,” Polis said in a statement. “We refuse to keep people against their will if they desire to travel elsewhere. While the federal government and Congress, unfortunately, have failed the American people on immigration reform and border security, Colorado continues to assure culturally competent and humane support to help assist migrants escaping oppression.”

Denver has no set timeline on the recreations centers’ transition back to normal, but the city said in a news release that it’s working with community partners to ensure everyone has shelter or housing.

“It is the middle of winter in Denver. We have a moral responsibility to keep newly arriving migrants safe and we will continue to do just that,” Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer said in a news release.

‘Resilient people’

Rev. Mike Morran said his congregation near downtown Denver has a long-standing relationship with the city helping with homeless sheltering efforts, and the city reached out when it needed help for the migrants. Morran said his congregation has been involved in immigration justice in Denver for over a decade and works regularly with organizations like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the American Friends Service Committee.

Morran’s congregation temporarily housed a few groups of about 20 migrants at a time for four nights. It is also feeding an additional group of 14 people who are staying at another church that is unable to feed them.

Morran described the migrants he’s spoken with as “resilient people” under “enormous amounts of stress.”

“Immigrants to our country are not monolithic in any way, shape, or form,” Morran said. “They’re all different ages. They have all different kinds of needs. Some of them have a few resources, most of them do not. Some of them have family connections. Some of them have places to go, some of them don’t have any place to go or any resources. Some of them have health issues.”

He added, “These are people with complicated lives and complicated stories and complicated reasons for being here.”

Evan Dreyer, deputy chief of staff to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, speaks as a signer translates during a news briefing about migrants arriving in Denver, on Dec. 8, 2022, at the Denver City and County building. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Other cities feeling the impacts

Denver isn’t the only city that has seen an increase in migrants, especially those who are coming through Texas. While Colorado pitched in to arrange a few buses for migrants looking to get to New York and Chicago, the mayors of those cities wrote to Polis asking him to stop the buses because of how much they are already strained for resources.

“Although we share the concerns of accommodating the flood of asylum seekers, overburdening other cities is not the solution,” the letter from New York Mayor Eric Adams and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot reads. “We respectfully demand that you cease and desist sending migrants to New York City and Chicago.”

The Polis administration did stop sending buses after Polis spoke with both mayors, but a spokesperson from the governor’s office said Colorado’s priority is still “ensuring people are receiving the resources they need and can reach their desired final destination, which is the opposite of actions other states have taken to send people to places they likely had no intention of going to.”

Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott from Texas and Arizona’s former Gov. Doug Ducey have sent hundreds of buses full of migrants to cities New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington over the last year in an attempt to curb border crossings and send a political message to President Joe Biden and the cities’ Democratic mayors. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in September came under fire for airlifting migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Actually having buses go from the border into the interior to get people where they need to go is actually a good thing, because border cities, first, it’s not solely their responsibility to take on supporting all these folks ... Second, they just don’t have the resources at the moment.

– Madhvi Bahl, of the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network

Madhvi Bahl is an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network based in Washington, D.C., another city that has seen an uptick in migrant arrivals. She said it’s “embarrassing” for Chicago and New York to be spreading “anti-immigrant rhetoric” when Colorado sent people who specifically sought to get to these cities.

“If those folks were trying to get to Chicago and New York, then you’re kind of proving the point of all these people who are saying that we claim that we’re welcoming, but when it comes to our own cities, we’re not going to do it,” Bahl said.

Bahl estimated Washington is not the final destination for about 80% to 85% of the migrants that come through the city, but most of the time they’re looking to go somewhere in that region of the country. Part of what the Mutual Aid Network does is help migrants find a way to get to their intended destination, and Bahl said having a welcoming face to greet people when they arrive is key, as many of the migrants are in need of respite after traveling for days or weeks.

“At least the folks coming to D.C. have very recently crossed the border, so this is the first time they kind of just get to sit down and be with their thoughts and relax and try to make that space as safe as possible,” Bahl said.

While the intentions of states sending buses of migrants north aren’t always the best, Bahl said it can actually be helpful when officials get migrants one step closer to their desired location. She said cities like New York and Washington have more resources to help people, and if the federal government got involved to create a more structured busing system across the country, it would be “incredibly helpful to everyone.”

“Actually having buses go from the border into the interior to get people where they need to go is actually a good thing, because border cities, first, it’s not solely their responsibility to take on supporting all these folks,” Bahl said. “Second, they just don’t have the resources at the moment.”

Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative in New York City, also said border states and cities shouldn’t be the only ones managing these migrant flows. She said once word of mouth starts to spread among migrants heading to specific cities, others will likely follow, which probably contributed to Denver’s increasing arrivals.

Mackler said migrants traveling to more northern cities usually fall into one of two categories: Either they know someone living in or near one of the cities they’re trying to connect with, or they have no resources or connections in the U.S. and are following others based on word of mouth and social media.

National and local solutions needed

Cities seeing high numbers of migrant arrivals should play an active role in helping them as early as possible, Bahl said, putting systems in place to ensure folks land softly. She said the federal government should do what it can to support receiving cities, because essentially there is no consistent or standardized approach to supporting newly arriving migrants across the country.

“There are cities that are failing as cities and not putting enough into what’s happening, especially cities with money, and then there’s the federal government that’s also failing the cities by not helping in any way,” Bahl said. “Obviously, you can take direction from cities down south who have been doing this along the border … for a long time and learn from them, but for the most part, all of the receiving cities for the Abbott buses have been reinventing the wheel to some degree.”

Mackler said city governments should make more of an effort to invest in local nonprofits that have a greater understanding of migrant needs.

“There’s some nuances, but there’s also some very common needs that the cities have identified, too. For example, these individuals need work authorization as soon as possible, because that’s what’s gonna get them out of the shelters and onto the path of self-sufficiency,” Mackler said.

But all eyes remain on the federal government to come up with a national solution. Biden recently visited the border in El Paso, Texas, and announced new plans to more rapidly expel migrants who cross the border illegally and offer additional legal options to enter the country for those seeking asylum. Not everybody has been happy with his decisions.

“It’s not wrong to think that there should be a whole country and a whole government response to this,” Mackler said. “It’s long past time that we keep acting like this is just a border-state problem because that happens to be where the border physically is.”

In the meantime, Colorado’s governor continues to look for solutions that could help Denver and the migrants coming here establish themselves or reach their intended final destinations.

“The Governor has been in regular contact with the Congressional Delegation and the Administration, asking for better border security, a plan on what to do once Title 42 ends, funds for successful immigrant intervention, and an expedited means of providing work authorization for migrants, which will allow them to become self-sufficient and decrease sheltering needs,” a spokesperson for the governor said in an email.

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Lindsey Toomer
Lindsey Toomer

Lindsey Toomer covers politics, social justice and other stories for Newsline. She formerly reported on city government at the Denver Gazette and on Colorado mountain town government, education and environment at the Summit Daily News. Toomer graduated from the Pennsylvania State University, where she also served as managing editor of The Daily Collegian, with degrees in journalism and global studies.

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